According to conventional wisdom, the new Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. will be just a continuation of status quo, including on foreign policy and relations with great powers. After all, Marcos Jr. is the first pro-administration candidate in decades to win a Philippine presidential election, which is often won by opposition candidates every six years.
Crucially, the new Philippine president has also openly backed the Beijing-friendly strategic predisposition of his predecessor, arguing that “it is the right way to go.” And right after his election victory, Marcos Jr. made it clear that he views China as the Philippines’ “strongest partner,” especially in terms of accelerating “the stability of our economic recovery” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In contrast to Duterte, however, the new Philippine president has also welcomed warm strategic relations with traditional Western allies, especially the U.S.. If anything, U.S. President Joseph Biden was the first foreign leader to hold a conversation with Marcos Jr. following his election victory. In a span of weeks, the new Philippine president had cordial exchanges with at least three high-level U.S. officials, including U.S. Embassy in Manila Chargé d’Affaires Heather Variava, who was among first foreign diplomats to meet the president-elect, as well as Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who personally visited Marcos Jr. in Manila.
The new Filipino president has also taken a relatively tougher stance on the South China Sea disputes by, inter alia, insisting on the finality of the arbitral tribunal ruling at the Hague in the South China Sea, which questioned China’s claims in the disputed areas, as well as warning rival claimants that “will not compromise it in any way” over the Philippines’ “sacred” sovereign rights in the area. Marcos Jr. has made it clear that his strategic preference is for a network of “partnerships and alliances,” which could help boost the Philippines’ economy and protect its national interest. By all indications, Marcos Jr’s foreign policy may turn out more like his late father’s than his immediate predecessor.
From Beijing With Love
The Marcos family has a deep history of friendship and cooperation with China. Former Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986 with an iron fist, was among first American allies to establish formal diplomatic relations with Maoist China. In fact, the new Filipino president personally met Chairman Mao Zedong, when his family visited Beijing in the mid-1970s as part of a high-profile diplomatic mission.
The warm ties continued even after the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship. Following a few years of luxurious exile in Hawaii, Marcos Jr. returned to the Philippines with the rest of the family. Within just a few years, they had re-established themselves as the overlords of the province of Ilocos Norte, which is located in the northwestern tip of the Philippine island of Luzon. As governors and congressmen, various members of the Marcos dynasty maintained strong commercial and diplomatic ties with local government counterparts in China, which identified the northern Philippine provinces as crucial to it’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) in Southeast Asia.
On his part, shortly before registering his presidential candidacy, Marcos Jr. underscored his commitment to continuing Duterte’s diplomatic approach to Beijing: “The policy of engagement, which the Duterte government is implementing, although it is criticized, it is the right way to go.” Echoing the outgoing president, Marcos Jr reiterated, “[W]hatever we do, we can’t go to war…we don’t want to go to war with China.”
After securing an emphatic electoral victory, Marcos reiterated his preference for strong ties with China. During a speech before influential Chinese-Filipino businessmen, he reiterated the importance of strong commercial ties with China as key to Philippine economic recovery and long-term development. “We can only do it with our partners—and our strongest partner has always been, in that regard, our close neighbor and our good friend, the People’s Republic of China,” declared Marcos Jr., celebrating how bilateral ties are “developing in many ways” and that maintaining strong economic ties with Beijing is “very important” and “advantageous” for the Philippines.
In particular, China is instrumental to Marcos Jr.’s infrastructure development initiative, a major pillar of his economic recovery plan. The latest data show that out of 119 big-ticket infrastructure projects under Duterte, with a tag price of almost $100 billion (at PHP 5.08 trillion), only 12 were completed to date. Meanwhile, the Philippines is also confronting ballooning debt. Thus, securing infrastructure financing from, and pursuing warm commercial ties with China is extremely crucial right now.
The Father’s Legacy
There are, however, three reasons to expect Marcos Jr. to take a more calibrated approach towards China in favor of optimal ties with all major powers, including the U.S., Europe, and Japan.
First of all, the new Filipino president doesn’t share Duterte’s lifelong personal resentment towards America, which heavily complicated bilateral relations in recent years. In fact, Marcos Jr. and his wife and children, are products of Western education. Both Marcos Jr. and his son (Sandro) attended boarding school and university in the United Kingdom.
An aficionado of British music and culture, Marcos, just days after election victory, chose Australia for family vacation and has expressed his openness to visit Western capitals in official capacity over the coming years. And Washington has already reassured the new Filipino president that he would enjoy sovereign immunity during any prospective travels to the U.S. despite several pending cases against his family in American courts.
Second, Marcos Jr., as a democratically-elected leader, will have to contend with structural constraints vis-à-vis warmer relations with China. Despite Duterte’s concerted effort to build a special relationship with Beijing, bilateral relations have faced skepticism at home. China’s net trust rating among Filipinos reached as low as -35 percent in 2018, only slightly improving to -33 percent the following year.
Meanwhile, a preliminary survey conducted by the author among top Philippine military officials, many of whom have received training in the U.S. and Australia, showed that China is seen as a top external security threat among emerging leaders in the Philippines’ defense establishment.
Lingering skepticism towards Beijing is partly due to festering maritime disputes in the South China Sea, including several high-profile incidents between Chinese vessels and their Filipino counterparts, as well as the non-fulfillment of China’s pledges of large-scale investment pledges to Manila. In fact, Marcos Jr.’s incoming finance secretary, who played a key role in shaping Duterte’s infrastructure agenda, recently admitted that “There were a lot of promises [by China] but not much was delivered.”
Finally, Marcos Jr. is also deeply influenced by the legacy of his father, who adopted a tough stance in the South China Sea disputes by establishing advanced military facilities in the Spratly group of islands as well as developed optimal strategic ties with rival superpowers, including the U.S., Soviet Union, and China.
Just days after his election victory, Marcos Jr. met envoys from all major powers, expressing his interest in developing optimal strategic and economic ties with a broad network of allies and partners, including the U.S.. On the South China Sea disputes, he has taken a far tougher stance than his predecessor by vowing to deploy warships to disputed waters in order to “show [to] China that we are defending what we consider [as] our territorial waters”.
Marcos Jr. has also made it clear that he “will not compromise…a single square millimeter of our maritime coastal.” His incoming National Security Adviser, Clarita Carlos, has signaled “critical engagement” with China, combining economic engagement with geopolitical assertiveness, while his top defense and diplomatic officials hail from more traditionally-oriented strategic elite circles, who don’t share Duterte’s anger towards the West. Overall, the new Filipino president seems committed to replicating his father’s dynamic strategic balancing vis-à-vis all major powers instead of siding with one superpower against the other.